IN THE UAE
Lindsay Judge meets the women in Dibba who’ve come together to share their knowledge of talli, a form of embroidery passed from mother to daughter – preserving history and leading to a bestselling collaboration with British luxe brand Asprey
A group of women in Dibba weave magic on global runways with their exquisite tallis. Friday meets them.
While many of us are running round the malls trying to get the latest Zara shoes or saving our dirhams for the newest Prada handbag, there is a small community of women in the UAE that are having international success at keeping traditional Emirati embroidery crafts alive.
The Bidwa Social Development Programme Centre began by accident in 2016. Her Highness Shaikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qassimi, wife of His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, was at Sharjah Women’s Club and noticed one of the women was carrying a stunning embroidered bag. When asked where she got the bag, it turned out that the woman had made it herself, and customised it with a handwoven braid called a talli. At the time, Shaikha Jawaher knew nothing of this technique, but was so impressed with the bag that she had to find out more.
After speaking to some of the ladies, Shaikha Jawaher discovered that a talli is something the older Emirati generations have been making in their homes in order to customise their clothes for years. It was from here, with the help of the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, that the programme began. That one lady with the bag had many friends doing the same thing – and by word of mouth there are now 37 women, many of them retired or elderly, working at the centre, creating up to 45 types of talli.
Aside from talli, the centre also has women producing safeefah, a form of weaving with dried palm leaves, and sadu, a form of loom weaving.
The council’s vision was to bring these crafts to a larger audience, and it seems to be working. Since opening in 2016, the centre, which is located in Dibba, on the UAE’s east coast, has partnered with British brand Asprey to create a limited-edition range of bags. The collection was quite suitably named One Stitch at a Time. The centre has also created talli designs for Emirati-inspired catwalk looks for the Accademia Italiana at the prestigious Alta Roma fashion week, Rome’s version of haute couture.
‘Through vocational training and skills development, the programme constantly works to develop the crafts within a fresh narrative,’ says Reem Bin Karam, firector of NAMA Women Advancement Establishment. NAMA is a non-profit that developed Irthi. ‘The programme ensures the preservation of the crafts and allows us to incorporate them into contemporary design elements, enabling access to new market opportunities on the regional and international stage. Through a series of international showcases and successful collaborations in past years, we
were proud to share the rich cultural heritage of the UAE to a larger global audience.’
As the centre continues to grow, there are big plans for these women, with future collaborations already in the works. The tallis they are making really are incredible. The technique looks very complicated; the finished product is a flawless design, so it’s no wonder they have been picked up internationally.
‘The Asprey team came to the centre and spent three days here seeing what the ladies do,’ says Shareefa Hasan Al Dhuhoori, manager of the Bidwa Centre. ‘They chose the colours and styles of talli they wanted and the ladies made it. They worked 20 hours [a day] to complete the work.’ The completed tallis were sent to London to be fixed to a limited-edition collection of handbags, sold for Dh25,000 to Dh157,000 – and all of the bags were sold. ‘We will be doing it again in 2018,’ Shareefa says; ‘we will have a different type of talli to make the people say “wow” again. We research new types of talli all the time. Many of the women watch videos on YouTube at night to learn how to make new types of talli.’
But why have we never heard about it? ‘Many modern people in the UAE do not care for these kinds of crafts,’ says Shareefa. ‘They want to go to the mall and get the latest handbag or designer item. For this reason we are targeting the European market. To them, this is something different and exotic. We would, however, love to sell tallis to brands in the UAE – we just need to find the right partnership.’
While you cannot buy the tallis themselves directly from the centre, the women sell their crafts at markets throughout the year, Shareefa explains. ‘We have the ladies at events showing what they are doing. We regularly go to markets and events in Sharjah to showcase the tallis. The feedback is amazing – everyone is asking about them, what they are and how the ladies are doing it.’
So how has this particular centre been so successful? Of course there is the backing and funding of the Irthi Council, but as Friday saw firsthand when we visited one day during Ramadan, the work ethic of these women is incredible.
‘Many MODERN people in the UAE do not care for these kinds of crafts. They’d rather go to a mall and shop for the LATEST handbag or designer item. For this reason we are targeting the European market’
Many of them have been creating these crafts in their homes for decades, but bringing them to a work environment is different. ‘When the ladies come [to the centre] we give them two weeks of training so we can find out what they can do and which level we should put them in,’ says Shareefa. ‘If all goes well and both parties are happy, we make a contract with the lady. The ladies work for three hours a day and most of them have families to look after back home, but will sometimes continue their work at home as well. For a basic talli, it takes three hours per metre. The more complicated the talli, the longer it takes.’
Many of the women are retired or without a job, so the centre helps to give them a purpose. ‘We made the centre not just to create the designs, but also to empower the ladies. Many of these ladies are retired and some are even grandmothers. They are not working and in many cases feel like they need a purpose or something to get them out of the house, so we are giving her
For 25 years Moza Saif Al Muhairi had been making one type of talli. Now she’s learnt 10 other styles